Monday 23 July 2018

The Æthelflæd Paradox - My Tamworth Litfest Talk

On Saturday 14th July, I gave a talk about Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, and how I gave her a 'voice' in fiction. I was invited to do this as part of the Tamworth Literary Festival. Here is a transcript of the talk I gave, as part of the celebrations to commemorate her 1100th anniversary.

During my introduction I thanked those involved for inviting me to talk about Ethelfled, Athelflatt, Ethelfleda… and said that the pronunciation of her name is just the smallest of the problems we have to deal with when piecing together her life...

"I could talk for hours about the Anglo-Saxons – don’t worry, I won’t! – because I spend my life reading and writing about them, especially the Mercians. But I want to talk today about what we know about her childhood, her husband’s presumed illness, and her ‘rule’, because they are central themes in the novel.
I couldn’t interview anyone who knew her, obviously, and I didn’t go digging about in archaeological trenches! So inevitably, I fell back on the primary sources but, whilst we think we know a lot about her, there is precious little in the way of documentary evidence.

I’d like to start though by talking about her husband, Æthelred. He was not a king, although he seems to have had high status – we just don’t know quite what it was, or where he came from. There’s no evidence that he was even a leading ealdorman prior to becoming leader of Mercia.

Of the two kings before him, one was Burgred, who was married to Alfred the Great’s sister, and who fled when the Vikings occupied Repton, in the Mercian heartland, with the help and connivance of the next king, Ceolwulf II, who was described as a ‘foolish king’s thegn’ but was very probably a member of a rival royal dynasty. 

And the next ruler of Mercia was Æthelred. We don’t know how he came to lead when there seems to have been no power struggle and he was not of royal stock, nor if he was ruling independently of Alfred at this stage. There were even members of the royal family still alive, but I’ll come back to them in a moment.

Joint Campaign
The campaign against the Viking invaders is quite long and complicated, but I just want to highlight a couple of incidents. One is when Alfred came to an agreement with a Viking named Hasteinn and where Hasteinn gave oaths and hostages, and his sons were baptized with the sponsorship of Alfred and the ealdorman Æthelred. 
   Another was when Alfred’s son, Edward, besieged the enemy and ‘Earl Æthelred lent his aid to the prince [Edward].’ 
   So the three leaders were clearly working together and are named as doing so in the annals. This is an important point.

Alfred's Will
In his will, Alfred left Æthelred a valuable sword but there is no mention in the document that Æthelred was his son-in-law. This omission could of course be accounted for if the will was drawn up before the marriage took place, but then it seems unlikely that he would have bequeathed anything at that stage to a man whom he hardly knew. This is interesting, because if we relied on this document and the ASC (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle), we wouldn’t know that they were married at all. Only a later Anglo-Norman Chronicler tells us that they were "united in marriage." We don’t know exactly when the wedding took place, and it’s safe to assume that she was younger than him, by some margin. 


There is very little mention of her in the chronicles. Asser (the Welsh monk who knew Alfred and wrote his Life) is clear that she was the first-born, and it is sometimes assumed that she was raised somewhere other than the court of Wessex, because Asser said that the two youngest children were at all times fostered at the royal court. But it is a large leap to assume that the other children were not brought up at the Wessex court, and nowhere does Asser specifically say that Æthelflæd was raised elsewhere. If she were, then Mercia would have been a possibility, since her mother was Mercian and her aunt was married to the king of Mercia. Presumably though, had she been sent there, she would have returned to Wessex when her uncle the king fled after the Vikings overran Repton.

Even the later chroniclers don’t have much to say about her. William of Malmesbury (12th century) has barely ten lines about her. He's the one who gives us the story that she refused sex after a difficult labour with her only child. Now, I don't know about you, but my view is that had this lady decided to cease all 'marital relations', it's unlikely that she would have told anyone, much less allow them to write it down...

Henry of Huntington (also 12th century) proclaimed that:
Heroic Elflede! great in martial fame,

A queen by title, but in deeds a king.
Heroes before the Mercian heroine quail'd:
Caesar himself to win such glory fail'd.
Henry was clearly rather taken with her, but he got a bit muddled when talking about this family. He seems to think that Æthelred was Æthelflæd’s father and that Ælfwynn was her sister, when in fact they were her husband and her daughter respectively. It's possible that he knew Æthelflæd succeeded Æthelred, but that he didn't know why, so he assumed that she was his daughter.

Æthelweard the Chronicler - writing in the tenth century, so much nearer the events, and a member of the Wessex royal family - still only mentions her once, when he says that ‘the king’s sister’ departed this life. There is no suggestion that she was anyone’s wife, much less that she was at any time in charge of Mercia.
We only really know about her after his death. Not even during his presumed illness. So what can we deduce about that illness?


Early on in his reign, Edward, her brother, faced a rebellion from their cousin, who allied with the Vikings, but the interesting thing about this episode for me was that fighting alongside this rebellious cousin was the son of a man described as ‘the atheling Beornoth’, a Mercian. If this man was a relative of King Burgred, it suggests some simmering resentment at what might have been perceived as West Saxon influence in Mercia. 

But what of Æthelred? Despite the fact that these rebels harried Mercia, the ASC says that it was Edward who chased them and faced them down. Could this be the first indication that Æthelred had been taken ill?

In 906 Edward made peace with the Vikings ‘from necessity’. So in a few short years the English resistance had withered from a triumvirate to Edward working, seemingly, on his own. Gone are the comments along the lines of ‘with the aid of Æthelred, earl of the Mercians’ and in 907 an entry merely states that ‘Chester was restored.’

By whom? If it was Edward, or Æthelred, why not say so? It seems strange that at this pivotal time, a woman was allowed to lead, yet it’s hard not to conclude that she was in charge at this time. 
We have a couple of sources for Æthelred’s illness (as well as reading between the lines where he’s suddenly no longer mentioned,) although one is just a passing reference.

The other is a fragmentary annal which comes to us from Ireland and is known as the Three Fragments. It's not considered hugely reliable but it does tell us that when Chester was overrun, messengers were sent to the ‘King of the Saxons [Æthelred] who was in a disease and on the point of death.’ And it seems to suggest that she was acting on his advice.

Neither the ASC nor the Mercian Register records his illness, but when Edward gathered West Saxon and Mercian forces and went harrying into Northumbria, there is no mention of Æthelred. 

And when, presumably in retaliation, the Northumbrians broke peace, and ravaged Mercia, at the ensuing battle at Tettenhall, Æthelred is not mentioned. The year before this battle, it was his wife who was credited with building a fortress at a place called Bremesbyrig.

So it's probably fairly safe to conclude that he was indeed ill, and for some time.

Her Rule 
When Æthelred died, Edward took London and Oxford under his direct control. Why was he happy to leave Mercia ‘proper’ to his sister? 
Perhaps it was taking him some time to secure his reign. Viking activity was strong, and early on in his reign he had been forced to counter a rival bid for his throne. Perhaps there were other similar incidents. It is possible that by taking Mercia under his direct control he would have been spreading himself too thinly. But, if that were the rationale, why not appoint an ealdorman to rule the province for him in his name? To have a woman leader was not unprecedented but was still rare. He did not allow her daughter to succeed so maybe personal qualities came into play. Because, the question also needs to be asked: why were the Mercians happy to have her as a ruler?
We don’t know that Æthelflæd wielded a sword, or even led Mercian troops. The Mercian Register, even though it calls her Lady of the Mercians whereas the ASC only calls her Edward’s sister, focuses on her building programme, rather than the fighting.

So, what is the Mercian Register? It is, or rather they, are a series of entries contained within the ASC and it/they concentrate exclusively on Æthelflæd. It records her death with the words ‘the eighth year in which she had held power with right lordship’. There are only two mentions of Æthelred, once at his death in 911, and once as Ælfwynn’s father. There may have been a lost chronicle, one in which Æthelred played a much more prominent role, which would explain why the chroniclers got confused and also hints again that his status may have been higher than ‘mere’ ealdorman. Note that Ælfwynn is described as his daughter, rather than Æthelflæd's. But, if there were such a chronicle, it's lost to us now.

The focus as we have it now, is very much on Æthelflæd’s role as ruler. But, typed out, it still only covers one A4 sheet of paper. I know, because I've done it!

The years following Æthelred’s death saw his widow and her brother busy with the building programme, with Edward building five fortresses and Æthelflæd building nine and both had the enemy submitting to them. The campaigns appear to have been strategic & coordinated. 

In the middle of all this frenetic activity she sent an army into Brycheiniog (Llangorse Lake). The Mercian Register tells us that this was to avenge the death of an abbot.  

 The following year she took the borough of Derby and
in 918 The Three Fragments says that she directed a battle against the Dublin-Norse, ordering her troops to cut down the trees where the ‘pagans’ were hiding. Thus we are led to believe that as well as partnering her brother in an extensive and well-co-ordinated attack on the Danes, she was conducting her own campaign against the Norse.
Was she literally leading these armies; where did she learn to do this? It was unprecedented. We are told that an earlier queen of Wessex, who ruled for a year after her husband’s death, was expelled because ‘they would not go to war under the conduct of a woman,’ and notice that it’s only the Three Fragments which states that she was leading troops. 
On 12 June 918, as we know, Æthelflæd died here at Tamworth. Her body was taken to Gloucester for burial,  so probably quite a speedy funeral procession, given the time of year! 

The Annals of Ulster recorded the death of the ‘most famous queen of the Saxons’ and the Annales Cambriae recorded that ‘Queen Æthelflæd died’. Is it possible though that they afforded her the royal title because they simply didn’t know what else to call her? The only time they mention her is on the occasion of her death. 

In December 918, Æthelflæd’s daughter was taken into Wessex. The Mercian Register complains that she was ‘deprived of all authority’. Why was Edward content to let his sister govern Mercia, but not her daughter; was it a simple case that the daughter did not match the mother in terms of ability? Timing may be a factor here; it should maybe be noted that by this stage, Edward had adult sons, who needed more inheritance than could be provided by Wessex alone.
But that Edward left his sister in charge, firstly after her husband’s incapacitation, and then again after his death, when he could have marched in and brought Mercia under his direct control, surely tells us a lot about her and their relationship. Especially bearing in mind that he did exactly that once she’d died.  

It speaks to me of her personal strengths.

So, how did I go about giving her a voice, without straying from the documented history? 

It's sometimes difficult to know where to begin a novel, but in this case I knew I had to start with her childhood, because here is where I think the relationships must have been forged, particularly her bond with her brother. 

So this family, which included a disaffected cousin, who in all likelihood grew up with the royal children, and a father who must of necessity have been a distant figure (and he's portrayed as such in the book) - how did the campaigns affect his wife who was waiting at home? That’s something I explore.

I did send her to her aunt’s court in Mercia early on. It was important for the novel’s story that she had vague memories of the place, and that she was surprised upon her return to find that she wasn’t welcome. I have no idea if this was true, but if, as we think, there was Mercian resentment to losing power and kingship, it makes sense that they might have been initially hostile to this princess of Wessex. And what the marriage signified for Mercian independence.

Æthelred’s illness was an interesting challenge. It had to be something which laid him low, but that allowed him to be compos mentis, to still be able to give strategic advice, if the Three Fragments is to be believed. It had to be something which allowed him to linger, for the best part of a decade, but that still eventually killed him. 

If I’d stuck to what we know about Æthelflæd, then ironically the book would have been very short. So I did send her to Wales, even though there’s no clear evidence that she went. She ‘sent’ an army into Wales, we're told, but drama is not much good if it’s all happening off-stage, so I let her go with them.

And remember those hostages of Hasteinn’s? I decided to send them to Æthelflæd in Mercia for safe-keeping. This was interesting, because a central theme of the book is that throughout her life, the enemy has been fearsome, destructive, but also unseen. Suddenly, she has to face her demons.

And I used the ‘myths’ that surround her life, but tried to ground them plausibly. The Three Fragments, as I said, not hugely reliable, gives us some juicy detail about the siege of Chester and in particular of certain things which were thrown over the walls at the enemy. So early on I gave her the trait of chucking things when she's in a bad mood, and the things that she throws are also introduced early on, so that when the idea comes to her it's a logical progression rather than appearing from nowhere.

She only had one child – that seems to have been established - but I weaved in a reason why that might have been. And it has little to do with William of Malmesbury's assessment!

People need to trust what they’re reading when it comes to historical fiction so it’s important that we don’t change the facts but we interpret how the characters react. Always asking the question: Why? And we must ground the story in reality:
A sentence in history becomes years of relationship. We can say simply that ‘In around 886 they were married and he was probably older than her by some years.’ But this short sentence becomes chapters and chapters of a novel, where we explore how the relationship developed, how each partner viewed it and what it represented.

I also needed to recreate the Anglo-Saxon world – the food, clothing, lifestyle, agriculture. This involved much reading, research, and I talked to a number of generous and gracious leading academics. I needed to know things such as whether we can say that the ages of puberty & menopause were similar to those of today. I also needed an explosion, set in a world which didn't have gunpowder or cannons. And I was delighted to discover the flammable properties of flour dust! 

Summing Up
She wasn’t a queen because he wasn’t a king. Simple. But why not? Other kings of Mercia had taken the title before, with no direct claim. So, was he Alfred’s vassal then? (Not that they would have used that word.) Their status as a couple is anomalous; unique.

I think that her whole life was lived under the threatening shadow of the Vikings. Her marriage was beyond her control and was only to seal a deal. What interested me was how she then might have dealt with that reality. How did she get the Mercians to accept her? 

I’m going to be a little controversial and say that I don’t actually buy the whole ‘warrior woman’ scenario. People often say that she had an agenda, that she was determined from the outset to make her mark, fight the Vikings, drive them away. I’m not convinced. 

I don’t think the fight would have been easy, or natural for her (Asser focuses on the royal children’s education, not sword practice.) My focus is on her continuing her husband’s fight, not her father’s, which gives a slightly different perspective.

I’ve portrayed her as a woman of her time – she had to fit into her historical setting – but within that, she was still extraordinary, and I wanted to explore how she became so.
I thought about how this woman in a man’s world might have felt when asked to lead a country in a time of war. There must have been a deal of soul-searching, of doubt over whether she could take on the role.

For me, she is a heroine, because of that: the woman I’ve portrayed is one who reacts to her circumstances, develops as she grows, and makes choices which she’s not always happy about. She is, above all, driven by duty – she’s the daughter of a king, after all – and this means personal sacrifice. How would her new life, in an unprecedented role, have affected the mother-daughter relationship?

I think she had to step up, despite her fear. By the time she goes to Wales, she’s exhausted, and battered by the losses she’s suffered. Remember, also, that by this stage, this woman was probably around 50 yrs old. Warrior woman or not, what she achieved was remarkable.

Remarkable, yet barely remarked upon. In this ‘year of women’ it’s a great boon to her reputation that it’s also her anniversary. People are talking about her, and yet we really can fit what we actually know about her into a few short pages. The paradox is that those few short pages can easily expand to fill an entire novel. And yet, hardly anyone has done so. For me, even after years of studying her and writing about her, in fiction and non-fiction, she remains an enigma. And a fascinating one."

To Be A Queen is my novel about The Lady of the Mercians, while she and her husband and daughter have a chapter to themselves in Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom, available for pre-order now, to be released in September 2018 by Amberley Publishing [This is now out in paperback too and in 2020 Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England was also published.]


  1. Thank you for posting the transcript, Annie. I thoroughly enjoyed the spoken version and its delivery. Its quite extraordinary how you have taken the (few) known facts and created a 'real' woman and such an excellent and plausible story

    1. Thanks Richard - I did stray a little from the script on the day, so this is the 'official' version. She's a gift to the novelist because of all those gaps, but the task is to fill the gaps with something believable. I still smile when I think of that Saturday in Tamworth - a wonderful experience!

  2. A thoroughly enjoyable and interesting read, Annie. Aethelflaed truly was a remarkable woman, which you have shown so well here. I'm sure your talk at Tamworth was a huge success.

    1. Thanks so much Millie - although I confess to nerves beforehand, it was such a wonderful opportunity to talk about this remarkable woman. The challenge was keeping it down to just 20 minutes; I could indeed have talked for hours!!

  3. Thanks for doing this. I very much appreciate it. Enjoyable read too

    1. Thanks Jeff. There was an attempt to video the talk but there is too much background noise from the air-conditioning unit so I thought a transcription would do instead :-)

  4. Thanks for posting. Most interesting.